Utah Youth Founds GSA
A junior high student in Bountiful, Utah has laid the groundwork for a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school, the Salt Lake City Weekly reported on June 1.
James Bennion, 15, began his project at the start of the year. Six months later, he’s got a GSA well on the way to being started at South Davis Junior High, having gathered 120 signatures from students at the junior high.
High schools were once the domain of GSAs, but in recent years such groups have also become more commonplace at junior high schools, as GLBT youth come out at younger ages and awareness permeates the culture that anti-gay taunts, harassment, and attacks do not have to be accepted as a young gay person’s lot in life.
"I just think people should be able to go to school without fear of being assaulted," Bennion told the press, going on to note that young GLBTs "shouldn’t have to miss days of school for fear of being bullied."
According to safe schools advocacy group the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), gay students do miss school at a higher rate than their straight peers--because they are too afraid to attend school. They also tend to drop out of school more frequently than their straight counterparts.
The Salt Lake City Weekly article cited a GLSEN study from 2007 that showed that over half of gay youths--60%--felt they were not safe while at school. A whopping 86% said that they had suffered harassment while at school.
And anti-gay harassment doesn’t always come from the kids. Administrators and educators, too, have been known to taunt and harass GLBT youth. The 2007 GLSEN survey found that 63% of students had heard teachers and school staff utter anti-gay remarks. In Minnesota last September, allegations of systematic harassment by high school two teachers, Diane Cleveland, 39, and Walter Filson, 56, led to an investigation by the state’s Department of Human Rights. The investigation found that the student, 18-year-old Alex Merritt, had had his rights violated.
The teachers reportedly mocked Merritt for being gay, although Merritt says he is heterosexual. Merritt finally transferred to, and graduated from, a different school; the school district denied any wrongdoing, but settled with Merritt’s family for $25,000. Cleveland was given a two-day suspension, but after one day called in sick, missing the rest of the week.
Among other allegations, Cleveland reportedly remarked that Merritt had a "thing for older men" when the student handed in a report about Benjamin Franklin, and joked during a screening of a movie in which a bathing suit scene took place that the sight of a scantily clad young woman on screen would not mean anything to the young man, adding that "maybe if it was a guy" on screen the scene would be a cause for concern.
Filson reportedly told students searching for participants for a fashion show to "Take [Merritt] because he enjoys wearing women’s clothes."
Earlier this year, an 11-year-old Ohio student’s mother took the school district to court after her son was singled out by teachers and humiliated for having long hair. The federal suit filed by the boy’s mother claimed that the boy was paraded before his classmates with his hair styled into pigtails, while his teachers encouraged his classmates to hurl gender-based abuse at him.
And last March, another lawsuit accused a former teacher at a New York City school of having forced a 9-year-old boy to out himself as gay--even though the boy was straight. The boy was a student at the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts, where Alessandroni worked at the time of the alleged incident, over a year ago. The boy, now 10, said he was "humiliated" by the incident, telling the media that after he wrote the note, "It started to spread around the whole class and then everyone wanted to call me gay."
Alessandroni left his position at the school and says that both matters were "thoroughly investigated," and that "I was cleared on every count."
"The teacher’s conduct was reprehensible and utterly inappropriate for a class of high school seniors, let alone second- and third-graders," attorney Patrick Mullaney, who represented the boy’s family, told the press. "But to make matters worse, the conduct was well-known and condoned by the school staff and administration."
"There were a lot of sexually inappropriate comments directed toward my son," the boy’s mother said.
In Utah, a 2007 law took aim at GSAs, requiring students to obtain their parents’ permission before they could join groups at school, the Salt Lake City Weekly article noted. This led to schools having the impression that GSAs were against the law--or, at any rate, schools claimed to have interpreted the law that way.
Another roadblock is the unwritten rule that teachers who act as advisers to GSAs will suffer career repercussions. The article cited Joel Briscoe, a former high school teacher who had served as adviser for Bountiful High School’s GSA and was later told that his having done so weighed against him when he was considered for another job. He did not get that job.
Bennion said that he was inspired to start the group when he learned that one of his friends was a lesbian. Before he had that personal connection to draw on in formulating his concept of GLBTs, Bennion said, he thought that gays were "gross and weird."
GSAs are helpful in the effort to promote safer schools, but there is no federal law in place that provides specifically for the needs of GLBT youth. Federal law does ban bullying, but does not list GLBTs among those protected, noted Sen. Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, who has introduced a bill that would extend anti-bullying legislation to protect GLBT youth.
"Our nation’s civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin," noted Franken. "My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."
Franken’s measure has garnered the support of 22 co-sponsors. In addition to criminalizing anti-gay harassment and violence at school, the bill provides penalties for schools that do nothing when its students are being bullied. Under the bill’s provisions, standing by and doing nothing while GLBT kids are attacked will mean a loss of federal funds. The bill also forbids discrimination by the schools themselves.